Common Cosmetic Ingredients That May Cause Acne: A Dermatologist’s Guide


Medically Reviewed by Dr. Lee Hwee Chyen

MBBS MRCP (UK) FAMS (Dermatology)

Common Cosmetic Ingredients That May Cause Acne: A Dermatologist’s Guide

Acne, an often persistent skin condition that can be both physically and emotionally distressing, can be exacerbated by certain cosmetic ingredients. Understanding these ingredients can help prevent acne flare-ups and maintain healthy skin. Read on to learn more about cosmetic ingredients that may be causing your acne to worsen.

Understanding Acne and Comedogenicity

Acne manifests as inflamed or non-inflamed spots on the skin due to the overactivity of oil glands at the base of hair follicles. Certain cosmetic ingredients can aggravate this condition by clogging pores or irritating the skin.

The term “comedogenic” refers to substances that have a tendency to block pores and promote the formation of comedones, which are the skin-coloured small white or dark bumps frequently seen on the forehead and chin of those with acne. Thus, using cosmetics with high comedogenicity can result in more pronounced acne symptoms.

Why Knowing Your Skin Type Matters

Different skin types react differently to various cosmetic ingredients, and using unsuitable products can aggravate skin conditions like acne. Here’s a more detailed look at how skin type can influence the response to cosmetic ingredients:

Oily Skin

Characterised by increased sebum production, which results in a glossy appearance and may lead to clogged pores. When individuals with oily skin use cosmetics containing heavy oils or emollients, the excess oil can mix with these ingredients, leading to increased pore blockage. This blockage can stimulate the formation of acne. Those with oily skin should choose non-comedogenic products that are oil-free or contain lighter, non-clogging oils.

Dry Skin

Dry skin lacks natural oils or moisture, resulting in a dull and sometimes flaky appearance. People with this skin type may find that certain cosmetics, particularly those containing alcohol or harsh surfactants, can strip their skin of its natural oils, exacerbating dryness.

This dryness may lead the skin to produce more sebum in an attempt to compensate for the loss of moisture, which could increase the risk of acne. Individuals with dry skin should seek out hydrating and gentle products that do not contain harsh, drying ingredients.

Sensitive Skin

This skin type is more prone to adverse reactions from irritating ingredients, which can cause symptoms like redness, itching, and inflammation. Cosmetics containing artificial fragrances, dyes, preservatives, or certain acids may cause flare-ups in those with sensitive skin. Hypoallergenic, fragrance-free, and gentle formulations for this skin type are typically the best choice to reduce the risk of irritation.

Combination Skin

As the name suggests, combination skin has both dry and oily areas, usually with the T-zone (forehead, nose, and chin) being oily and the cheeks being dry. This variability across the face means that the response to cosmetic ingredients can differ between these areas.

Heavy creams might clog pores in the oily T-zone, while lightweight lotions might not provide enough moisture for the dry areas.

People with combination skin often need to use a mix of products to cater to the different needs of their skin.

Cosmetic Ingredients to Watch Out For

Various cosmetic ingredients may contribute to the development of acne. These can include crucial components that determine the efficacy and purpose of a product.


These ingredients, such as Isopropyl Myristate and Laureth-4, are included in cosmetic formulations for their moisturising properties. They create a protective film over the skin that helps lock in moisture, which can be beneficial for dry skin. Their occlusive nature means they can also block pores, preventing the natural flow of sebum from the sebaceous glands to the skin’s surface. This blockage can result in the formation of comedones – the small bumps seen in acne.

Consequently, individuals with acne-prone skin need to be careful when using products containing these emollients.

Here are some examples of emollients:

  • Lanolin: Derived from sheep’s wool, lanolin is a heavy-duty emollient that has the ability to lock in moisture and prevent water loss from the skin. It’s often found in products designed for extremely dry skin. It can trigger acne in some individuals.
  • Jojoba Oil: Unlike most oils, jojoba oil closely resembles the skin’s natural sebum. This makes it an excellent emollient for a wide range of skin types, as it can moisturise without clogging pores.
  • Squalane: Derived from squalene, which is naturally produced by our skin cells, squalane oil is a lightweight emollient that suits all skin types.
  • Isopropyl Myristate: This synthetic oil is often used as an emollient in cosmetics due to its ability to enhance the absorption of products. It can be comedogenic and may exacerbate acne.

Each of these emollients serves to moisturise and protect the skin, but their suitability can depend on individual skin types and sensitivities.


Surfactants are predominantly found in cleansing products, from face washes to shampoos, due to their ability to bind oil and water, effectively removing dirt and excess oil from the skin. These surfactants can be overly stripping, causing the skin to lose its natural oils.

This can result in a state of dryness which, paradoxically, can lead the skin to produce more oil or sebum to compensate for the loss of moisture, a condition known as reactive seborrhea.

The increased sebum production can exacerbate acne in individuals who are already prone to this condition.

Here are some examples of surfactants:

  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): This is a commonly used surfactant in skincare products for its strong cleansing and foaming properties. But it can be too harsh for some skin types, causing dryness and irritation.
  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES): SLES is a gentler version of SLS but with similar cleansing and foaming properties. It’s commonly found in cleansers, shampoos, and bubble baths.
  • Cocamidopropyl Betaine: Derived from coconut oil, this mild surfactant is used in many gentle cleansers and shampoos. It produces a rich, creamy foam and is less likely to cause irritation.
  • Decyl Glucoside: This is a mild, non-ionic surfactant derived from corn and coconuts. It’s often used in ‘natural’ and sensitive skin-friendly products due to its gentle cleansing properties.
  • Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS): Similar to SLS, ALS is a strong cleansing and foaming agent. It’s often used in shampoos and body washes, but it can dry and irritate some skin types.
  • Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate: Derived from coconut oil, this surfactant is known for its mildness and high foaming power. It’s commonly used in syndet bars (synthetic detergent bars) and baby products.
  • Polysorbate 20: This emulsifying surfactant is used in cosmetics to combine oil and water-based ingredients. It’s often used in fragrance oils, lotions, and creams.
  • Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate: A strong cleanser, this surfactant is used in heavy-duty shampoos and body cleansers. It can be harsh and drying for some skin types.

Each surfactant has a unique property that makes it suitable for different product types and skin conditions. Some can be too harsh for certain skin types, leading to dryness or irritation, which can potentially exacerbate acne.


Silicones are often included in primers and foundations for their ability to create a smooth, almost “blurred” finish on the skin, helping makeup to glide on more evenly.

Like emollients, their occlusive nature can create a barrier that traps dirt, sweat, and dead skin cells in the pores, especially if the skin is not cleansed thoroughly. Over time, this build-up can lead to blocked pores and acne.

Some silicones to note:

  • Dimethicone: One of the most common silicones used in skincare and makeup, dimethicone creates a smooth, silky feel on the skin and can help to fill in fine lines and pores. It’s also used to seal in moisture, which can be beneficial for dry skin but may contribute to clogged pores in those with oily or acne-prone skin.
  • Cyclopentasiloxane: This lightweight silicone evaporates quickly after application, leaving a silky, smooth feel behind. It’s often used in products that need to spread easily, such as foundations and primers.
  • Phenyl Trimethicone: This silicone gives products a high shine and slippery feel. It’s often used in hair care products for its conditioning and shine-enhancing properties.
  • Cyclohexasiloxane: Similar to cyclopentasiloxane, this silicone evaporates quickly, leaving a smooth, non-greasy feel on the skin. It’s commonly found in creams, lotions, and makeup.
  • Amodimethicone: Often used in hair care products, amodimethicone provides conditioning benefits and leaves hair feeling silky and tangle-free.
  • Dimethicone Copolyol: This water-soluble silicone is lightweight and provides a silky feel without some other silicones’ heavy, occlusive properties. It’s often used in products designed for oily or acne-prone skin.
  • Silicone Resin: These are used in long-lasting or ’24-hour’ makeup products for their ability to adhere to the skin and resist transferring.

When using products with these ingredients, make sure to wash your face thoroughly to completely remove the product.

When to See a Dermatologist

Seek a dermatologist’s intervention when:

  • Acne persists despite trying over-the-counter treatments.
  • Acne causes physical discomfort or emotional distress.
  • There are signs of infection, such as painful, pus-filled spots.

Dermatologists can provide a comprehensive treatment plan tailored to individual skin types and acne severity.


Understanding your skin type, being aware of comedogenic ingredients, and making informed cosmetic choices can contribute to better skin health. Professional help from a dermatologist can be instrumental in effectively treating acne and should be sought when needed. Learn more about acne treatments on our website & Epi Dermatology & Laser Specialist Clinic’s Facebook.

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